Archive for RXbirdwalk

Carpinus & Coccothraustes

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on November 10, 2017 by cliffdean

In most of Europe Hawfinches are a typical woodland species, in E Poland for example hardly worth a mention, but on this side of the water they are scarce, shy, treetop birds, detectable only by their sharp, metallic ticking contact note and for the most part visible only as fat little silhouettes moving rapidly through the twiggery.

Equipped with massive bills adapted for cracking seeds as hard as cherry stones and taking chunks out of bird-ringers’ fingers, they are attracted to Hornbeams so flocks have been seen locally, attracting even rarer birdwatchers into the jungles of the High Weald.

In the last month, however, here has been an extraordinary southerly movement on the continent and an unprecedented influx into Britain with large flocks noted in many places where one would normally struggle to see them. Most of those I’ve seen have been singletons, appearing out of the blue, but I saw a couple of flocks of about 30 way back in the 70s. One was at Lullingstone Park near my home in SE London, where they gathered around ancient knotty Hornbeam pollards such as those drawn by Samuel Palmer.

The other was at Parham Wood, a square island of trees in an ocean of arable farmland. I could often hear the clicking there but it was tantalisingly hard to get a glimpse. It was at the time that East Anglia was blighted by the presence of the USAF but on that one occasion we had reason to be grateful to them for were standing in a ride when suddenly a huge transport plane roared low overhead, flushing a stream of Hawfinches across the gap.

Killingan Wood by Martyn Comley

For various reasons I’ve been unable to get to those sites where they’ve been most reliably seen but there’s so much Hornbeam around that many smaller woods might hold a few so I’ve been looking at places they’ve turned up before. Foremost among  these is a small area to the north of Sedlescombe where they also appear to have bred in recent years, so last Saturday’s RXbirdwalk convened there in the hope of tracking them down.

No luck, unfortunately though the woods look fabulous, with golden leaves backed still by green even at this late point in the year, many intriguing historical features, frequently varied leaf litter according to the dominant tree species (Hornbeam for charcoal, Sweet Chestnut for hop poles) and plentiful woodland birds such as Marsh Tits. Early in the walk we had seen great flocks of Woodpigeons either heading on glittering wings out to the coast or swirling around in search of a crop to ravage. Down at the reservoir there were Tufted Ducks, GC Grebes, Gadwall, rather fleeting views of Teal & Mandarin and even a glowing Kingfisher, while the walk back along narrow lanes included 4 Buzzards overhead and a brilliant Grey Wagtail strutting about on a cottage roof.

On Monday, in  I headed for another potential site at Ashes Wood,but even as I came out of my house a huge crowd of Woodpigeons swept overhead, then during the drive westward I was dangerously distracted by the spectacle of long ribbons of birds coming in from the Weald and taking a left at the Ridge to exit over the sea. Though this spectacle is typical of bright frosty mornings in early November it’s a few years since I’ve seen it and was tempted to give up on the Weald and stop instead at Hastings Country Park to savour its splendour. Instead, however, I crept along in morning traffic, keeping one eye on the car ahead and the other and the other on clouds of pigeons arriving over the rush-hour.

Although the coast had remained green, a mile inland car windscreens were frosted and the further I went inland, the whiter the fields. Beyond the colourful foliage of Ashes Wood (most of which was very cold & silent) the tiny boxed-in meadows shone silver, with long wriggling blue shadows stretched across them from outgrown Hornbeam hedges. At last, as I stared into Western Hemlocks for a glimpse of a Goldcrest, I heard Hawfinches clicking behind me where at least four were moving around in the tops of Birches (where two were feeding in the open) and Hazels (where more were shifting among the big yellow leaves).

Down by the mill pond, I’d just admired a smart new stile replacing its challengingly rickety predecessor when I met the new owner of the site who’d installed it. Unlike the previous incumbent whose management resembled that of an urban park, this lady hopes to make more of the property’s wildlife potential and to that end has already sought advice from SWT. shortly after her patient dogs had pleaded with their eyes to move on, a couple of Hawfinches appeared out in the open, perching in the tops of the Field Maple (for food) and Swamp Cypress (for surveying the scene) in the photo above. After that, however, no more sign and what’s more the footpaths to the west have fallen out of use and are overgrown with brambles, obstructing access to more interesting Hornbeam woodland up a once-dammed ghyll.

Yesterday I was carrying out a Sussex Winter Bird Survey near Beckley Woods, another occasional site for Hawfinches and about a mile away, several had been seen in an old abandoned orchard in Beckley itself. When 2 flew over me near Starvecrow Lane it wasn’t the best of views since I’d got my binoculars over my shoulder, had a notebook in one hand and had just got something in my eye, but had evidence at least of their presence.

Advertisements

Low water

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on October 30, 2017 by cliffdean

Sunday, Darwell Woods: the dense streamside vegetation close to Cackle Street was busy with birds, initially small flocks of Goldfinches & Siskins in the treetops (Redpolls audible but hard to see), then several Marsh Tits, both vocal and visible, accompanied by Blue, Great, Coal & Long-tailed tits, Goldcrests, Nuthatches, a Treecreeper and a GS Woodpecker.

Thereafter, the action was more sporadic, though still with regular Marsh Tits, as we made our way eastwards alongside an ancient hedgerow, At first, the path was ploughed up by horses (it’s a bridleway after all), then deeply incised through former usage by off-road vehicles. In both cases, the return to slithery, sticky Wealden  conditions was, I suppose, a seasonal delight.

East of the Conveyor Belt and past The Yellow Jeep, the deep & unwelcome carpet of Crassula helmsii was visible through the sprawling waterside willows, denoting a water level lower than I’ve ever seen it. This doesn’t mean that the level is unusually low, rather than that I don’t come here often enough to see it. Edging out of cover to see if any birds were frequenting the silted headwaters, we were surprised to see a Great Egret standing in the stream, with a Little Egret asleep to one side. This could be the first record of Great Egret for the site., perhaps unsurprising since they are quickly increasing and spreading in the area.

Just as interesting was the exposure of an old dam which I suspect held back the hammer pond for the nearby furnace. The bank of iron slag is topped by sandstone slabs to which are attached clusters of Zebra Mussels. So, side by side we have two very problematic invasive introduced species: a plant and a mollusc.

The view out onto the lake is normally much obstructed by trees, so it was rather exciting to walk out across this old dam to scan the open water. Apart from Tufted Ducks, Great Crested Grebes & Cormorants, there were Black-headed & Herring Gulls and Canada Geese on the far banks as well as some other ducks just too distant for identification without a telescope.

Unfortunately this was also the case with a tantalising small grebe keeping company with half a dozen distant Tufted Ducks. In spite of prolonged and squinting we were unable to get a clear enough view of the head pattern to decide for sure whether it was Black-necked or Slavonian – another good record in either case.

Heavy chunks of iridescent iron slag are bubbled and rippled like lava.

On the move

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on October 18, 2017 by cliffdean

On the Winchelsea Beach seawall, as we set off last Saturday, we were passed by constant flocks of Goldfinches which often fluttered down onto the roadside teasels. And if you turned your head in the other direction you could see Gannets gliding and diving on the horizon while from overhead came the trilling of Skylarks making landfall. I had made this walk a couple of times already in the last week and was surprised at how much had changed: the numbers of Chiffchaffs had decreased and House Martins, so very numerous before, were entirely absent, both species having plainly made their way south.

Among the passing Goldfinches we could often hear Siskins and Redpolls. While the former stayed in the air we were lucky to have good views of the latter as they alighted in bushes on the Beach Field. This is more than can be said for the several Goldcrests we came across, which typically hid in high canopy, showing mostly in silhouette.

The Fairy-ring Field by Castle Farm held its usual crowd of Pied Wagtails and just after one of the group asked if it were too late for Yellow Wagtails, two of them appeared – quite late in the season – both washed-out looking juveniles. Towards the Castle we found a couple of Stonechats though no Curlews or Egyptian Geese.

As we approached Castle Water, something greatly disturbed the birds upon it, which rose up in a great honking of Greylags and a range of ducks disappearing into the distance so we prepared to be disappointed but, whatever had caused the panic, things had settled down by the time we got into the hide. As usual there were hundreds of birds though not the range of waders there has been, nor the celebrated Little Gull. We did, though, have excellent views of hunting Marsh Harrier and a more distant Buzzard.

On the way back we ran into a Treecreeper on one of the big, gnarled willows in The Wood and at the southern end of The Ocean found a Great Egret feeding alongside a few Littles, providing a useful direct comparison of size, structure and stance.

As usual we saw a good range of species, numbering 67.

 

On the wire

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on September 4, 2017 by cliffdean

Encouraged by reports and photos like that above, taken by Tim Waters in the Brede Valley (it shows Whinchats, a Stonechat & a Spotted Flycatcher all on the same bit of fence), I decided that Combe Haven, a similarly rough river valley would offer similar species and therefore be a good venue for Sunday’s RXbirdwalk. It’s rare that these ideas work out exactly (see “It’s Not A Zoo”), the weather was dull and cool, the few warblers shy and hard to see.

Things began to look up as we heard Greenshank calls coming from the attenuation pond down the Powdermill Valley and once we got down there we had good views of 2 of them flying low over the water among a flurry of Sand Martins. Other species occupying the shallow, weedy water were Grey Heron, Cormorant, Little Grebe, Mallard, Gadwall, Mute Swan, Moorhen & Coot. The otherwise silent tree cover across the stream suddenly burst into life at Adam’s Farm when a tribe of Long-tailed Tits passed through, drawing in its wake Great & Blue Tits, Blackcaps, Chiffchaffs and a couple of Spotted Flycatchers.

Further on, the cluster of bushes beneath the old railway embankment was busily clicking with Blackcap contact notes. They were difficult to see as they dashed across small gaps and over our heads, along with other fleet passerines but what at first had seemed a couple of birds was probably nearer twenty. We also had good views of Lesser Whitethroat and less good ones of a young Bullfinch which kept popping up.

Along the river bank we finally ran into a group of 4+ Whinchats in instructively varied plumage, along with Common Whitethroats and resolutely hidden Chiffchaffs & Willow Warblers. The useful-comparison Stonechats came later as we joined the Greenway by Acton’s Farm: a smart juvenile and an exceedingly threadbare, tailless, moulting male.

Those ex-grazing meadows south of the Link road embankment are part of the SSSI but have not been managed for years and are degenerating into willow scrub. No-one wants to take responsibility for them or even seems to know who owns them, while my emails to Natural England in Lewes have gone unanswered. Left for much longer they will cost a fortune to get back in good condition.

The wooded parts of Royal Oak Lane are not usually very productive but upon stopping to listen for Treecreeper we found ourselves looking (albeit vertically) at a Firecrest and then the twitten dropping back down to the Plough was busier than I’ve ever seen it, with Great, Blue, Coal & Long-tailed Tits, Blackcaps, Goldcrests, GS Woodpecker, Nuthatch & Treecreeper.

Altogether we saw 56 species.

Otto Dix: Totentanz

Hill of Prumes

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on June 28, 2017 by cliffdean

Looks boring, doesn’t it? Nobody goes there. In other words the quintessential venue for an RXbirdwalk. Broomhill; where’s the hill, where’s the broom? Though the latter might once have grown here, a hill is hard to imagine let alone a bustling fishing port – which it was until 1287. According to Judith Glover’s “Sussex Place Names” the earliest version of the name, dating from the late 12th century, is Prumhelle, from Prume-hyll “Plum-tree Hill” – but using an unusual dialect word rather than the South Saxon plume. That’s got that cleared up, but still no sign of a hill, let alone plum trees.

I guess the hill could have been a tall shingle bank, since truncated by the 1287 storm among others. On the soil map below you can see the settlement’s position on a spur to the south of the great (yellow) sweep of the Wainway. The remaining farm buildings and an abandoned cottage are perched on the pink band of shingle to the right.

The plan for this RXbirdwalk was to see breeding Yellow Wagtails, restricted in Sussex to this eastern extremity. Though weather mid-week suggested we’d run the risk of heat-stroke the morning itself dawned gloomy and windy, though the rain held off till midday. I usually have a look at the beach to add a few gulls & waders to the list but on this occasion all birds had been cleared out by massed kite-surfers thrashing through the grey summer waves.

This & other bird photos by Peter Matthews

There were indeed loads of  Yellow Wagtails and loads of Reed Buntings too, though the former favoured wheat and the latter oilseed rape. Last year the YWs were in the same location among beans, leading me to mistakenly assume that the crop was the significant factor whereas I now suspect it’s something to do with the soil since nearly all wagtails were situated between the former seawalls (now ploughed out) in the soil map below. As much as I love this map’s pretty colours and historic boundaries I can’t claim to understand much about the soil, I’m sorry to say.

These RSPB articles on their Breeding Ecology and Advice to Farmers are informative

While we were differentiating males, females and juveniles, a strikingly different male popped up then vanished again. It had a blue head – like the continental subspecies but of a pale blue-grey hue and with a white supercilium, suggesting the hybrid “Channel Wagtail” but I just didn’t get a good enough view.

There were plenty of other birds around, including Skylarks, Linnets & a pair of Corn Buntings as well as big crowds of House Sparrows & Starlings commuting between the interwar bungalows of Jury’s Gap and the fragrant sewage works. In the background, a pair of Marsh Harriers were quartering the fields. There were, of course, no other people around apart from two horse-riders and a distant dog-walker.

Just to the east of this chainlink fence, below the crops, below the soil, lie the remains of Broomhill’s church whose skeleton still stood into the early 16th century though flooded centuries before.

Beside Jury’s Gut loafed a few moulting Mallards in company with a small, dark duck with a clearly yellow bill. In size, shape and flight appearance it resembled a teal of some sort and upon reference to some more expert observers turned out to be – wait for it – a Yellow-billed Teal which now seems to be regarded as a geographical race of Speckled Teal, a South American species escaped from a collection.

As we approached the Kent Pen Wall, a Cuckoo flew over us then while we had a look along the sheltered and scrubby north side of the bank for Whitethroats & Linnets I took notice of the tree species for the first time. Beside two species of Willow, a hunched Oak and a fluttering White Poplar I was surprised to see a fruit tree – bearing, in fact, unripe…plums! Hardly possible it could remain from Prume hyll days, perhaps planted as an historical reference or jettisoned from a picnic. Strange coincidence though. Further along was a flowering Privet.

A further revelation came as we continued westward into the wind and towards Corn Bunting song. An isolated pond fits neatly, on the map,  into the vanished repair loop on a lost seawall; an ancient scour pool now tranquil enough but a relic of drama, danger and fortitude from the past.

In the shade

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on June 21, 2017 by cliffdean

On Sunday, shadow falling from the park’s tall trees cast a welcome cool on a day of mounting heat. Although at 9 Hastings was still pretty quiet, traffic noise built up as visitors poured into the town and after a while the detection of birdsong was enhanced by the identification by sound of arriving motorcycles.

There was a remarkable amount of song – a lot of Wrens especially (and they always make themselves heard) – but also Blackbirds, Song Thrushes, Woodpigeons, Blackcaps & Chiffchaffs. A lot of Goldcrests too; we weren’t counting but it would have been interesting to have done so. My theory that the winter’s Firecrests might have stayed on to breed met with no support even after lengthy listening-in around ostensibly suitable habitats.

Caucasian Wing-nut – part of a shady stand of suckers by Shornden Reservoir

We spent a bit of time trying to identify trees. Out in the woods this is not too demanding but in this park it definitely is, thanks to the presence of about 400 different types, including forms & cultivars. As we moved around we passed through zones of musty perfume from flowering laurels.

The ponds provided interest not only from lazily cruising Carp but also a variety of spectacular dragonflies such as Emperor & Broad-bodied Chaser. At Buckshole Reservoir a Grey Wagtail seemed to be nesting in the concrete outflow structure and on Shornden the local Herring Gulls and a few Black-headed were joined by one Lesser Black-back.

From this open vantage point, a flock of Swifts could be seen wheeling over Bohemia.

 

8 & 7

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on June 16, 2017 by cliffdean

On Friday of last week we had a walk in the Salehurst area with two principal objectives, namely a search for singing Firecrests and lunch at the Salehurst Halt. Both were achieved, with silvery songs from 8 of the former shimmering down from sombre stands of Western Hemlock, which seems to be their preferred breeding habitat in this area (where Goldcrests share the same sites, yet in other habitats eg Scots Pine only Goldcrests can be heard). Altogether we saw 44 bird species, including several new to the list since previous visits have been in winter, and one very interesting chair – an industrial design classic languishing in deep woodland.

The following day, the RXbirdwalk from Pebsham over into the Combe Valley Countryside Park reached as far north as the attenuation pond to the north of the BHLR, following reports on FB of up to 4 Hobbies. In warm sunshine we counted and recounted until 7 were in view at once, performing breath-taking aerobatics right in front of us in their pursuit of hapless flying insects. Although we’ve seen Hobbies on previous RXbirdwalks – in fact 40 of them once at Dengemarsh – these were the best views ever (and i can remember the days when Hobbies were scarce).